I’ve started this letter about a dozen times; it’s been in the making for over a month. I wrote a draft, ripped it up, and started another – all mentally – because well, what’s that line about perfection being the enemy of good?
So here goes nothing.
I wanted to write a letter to my White friends. To offer information putting the recent, tragic murders of Black folk in historical context; to convey the emotional and the psychological toll that the murders of Black and Brown people (as well as America’s collective response) is taking on me, as your friend; also to dispel some myths – you know, like, the racist idea that George Floyd caused his own death. Can we all agree that Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery were all murdered? The same with Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, as well as the likes of Emmett Till, Fred Hampton, and the icon we all love to quote on race relations, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their lives were not merely taken away as some might suggest. There is no nice to way say it — they were all murdered. Some were murdered for working against racism; others murdered for merely existing.
But you already know that. At least, I hope you do. Still, I struggled to write this letter because I acknowledge you, as my White friend, are not in the same place — on the spectrum of working towards anti-racism — as my other White friends. I acknowledge some are working, daily, to acknowledge their privileges, finding ways to denounce racism, and working towards anti-racism. Some are just learning. While others may still be in denial, or, at least, unaware of the impact of devastating impact of racism.
So in many ways, offering a single letter to my White friends would never be nuanced enough, without becoming a 300+ page book. And maybe I’ll write that book one day. For now, though, I also struggled writing this letter because I lean on certain teachers to guide me as it relates to understanding racism, and anything I have to offer would pale in comparison to the guidance given by Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or the rawness in the autobiography of Frederick Douglas. Or the compelling, poetic brilliance of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Or any of the fictional masterpieces by Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, or Toni Morrison. And more contemporarily, the riveting, informative lectures delivered gives by Tim Wise or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Their words are far too insightful. They all convey the devastating impact of racism in far more eloquent words than I can muster. They approach the Black experience in far more nuanced ways than me. They don’t have typos in their blog posts. They speak of anti-racism with such enlightenment, they are catapulted into super heroic stratospheres. Which is why I started to write this piece several times and then stopped. Then I came back to it, embracing perfection should not be the enemy of good. But also realizing I had something inside that needed to get out.
I’m not sure if you know or not, but if I’ve ever come to visit you, I looked at the photos on your walls. I like seeing the memories and moments in time forever captured through still images. Secretly, though, I look to see how many Black faces are in those picture frames and my mind always runs adrift to: am I your only Black friend. On the one hand, pictures from your wedding day, vacations you’ve taken, or family gatherings cannot even begin to answer that question. Intellectually, I get that. On the other hand, though, in my heart, the question remains. If I am your only Black friend, to me, this means you could (probably) go an entire day, maybe a week, hell, perhaps even a month, without interacting with someone (in a meaningful way) who is Black. Damn! That says something. And (for me, at least) it does not say that you necessarily have consciously chosen to insulate yourself from Black folks. Oh no, it’s much bigger than that. To me, it says that America has allowed you to insulate yourself — through policies and policing; education and social services — from Black folk. We’ll come back to this. Just know, I don’t judge you if I am your only Black friend, but it does say something if I am.
If I am your only Black friend, please know it is a ton of weight being Black in America: grounding myself when my mind races, thinking that I could be the next Ahmaud Arbery; finding the strength to continually point out racism; practicing self-care; striving to be a good husband and father; working (at work, and in my personal life) on committees, working groups, and other initiatives to center Black voices; continually measuring myself by my successes of my Black ancestors (see those aforementioned); beating myself up over whether I responded to that not-quite racist, but certainly racial comment. The list goes on.
Also know, my sheer existence is threatening to the large White America. When I was about twelve, I was riding in the backseat of my grandmother’s car, returning from choir rehearsal. It was somewhere around eight or nine o’clock in the evening. In the backseat of my grandmother’s Cadillac, taking in the world around me, my eyes went adrift. Stopped at a red light, another car pulled up alongside us. The driver was a White lady. When her eyes met mine, she locked the door to her car and looked the other way. I guess she thought I would have the gumption to hop out of my grandmother’s car, and rob her. This felt like the biggest irony. Just coming from singing the Lord’s praises, I was the person least likely to inflict harm on another. But she didn’t see that — she only saw my Black skin, my maleness, and, putting those together, treated me like a threat. Did I mention I was only twelve? The day a 12-year-old is a threat is the day we ought to be asking a much different question. But, putting that aside for a minute, fast forward thirty years later, when I laugh too loudly, when I speak too passionately, I am still a threat. Don’t believe me, think about the case of Christian Cooper, who had the police called on him while bird watching. Or Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old shot to death for playing with a toy gun. I can’t count the number of ways that I try to downplay my Black-maleness so as to not project intimidation. (Brent Staples wrote a wonderful essay on this!) I hate it, and I often hate myself for it. But, in those moments, it feels like all that I can do to simply exist: how to make White people feel comfortable, so as to not be deemed a threat, and thus become the recipient of violence. When I’m quiet in all-White settings, which is often — especially around people I have only recently just met (on the sidelines as my son’s baseball games, for instance) — I am usually, and uncustomary quiet, pondering this very idea — how can I keep White people comfortable. Perhaps you are saying to yourself, it shouldn’t be this way. But it is. Because White supremacy allows it; and on that note…
On a much broader level, your individual Whiteness is not problematic. Let’s get that off the table. Nor are the individual ways in which your privilege manifests itself. (And I’m sure some people will come after me for that point — so bring it.) Teachings from Black ancestors illustrate the real problem — White supremacy. That is the culprit. That is what allows for violence against Black and Brown bodies; against the LGBTQ+ community; and against Jewish, Muslim, and different non-Christian religious communities as well. It’s one thing to have love for your cultural backgrounds (my Italian friends love being Italian, and that is wonderful!). If it simply ended there, we could live harmoniously, celebrating each other’s cultures. But, White supremacy is more than that; it says we have love in the White race AND we are better and superior over other races. If it simply ended there, we could co-exist, at the very least, engaging in conversations about racial differences and similarities, until we debunked the myth of racial superiority. But, White supremacy is more than that; it says that we also harbor hatred for other races. If it simply ended there, perhaps we could not live amongst each other, but in our respective communities, but we would all be able to live, freely and harmoniously. But, White supremacy is more than that; it goes on to say we have hatred for other racial groups, and hatred is so steep that we will enact violence against those racial groups. This is where the problem begins and ends. Violence in the form of slavery and lynchings. But violence also in the form of discriminatory housing policies, denying Black folk of VA loans following wars, as well as Stop and Frisk policing strategies. Violence in the form of White men with guns, looking to intimate, being celebrated and hailed as heroes. Violence also in the form of elected officials, caring very little about the plight of Black folk and putting forth laws to continue the subjugation of Black folk. Violence in the form of assassinations against those working towards anti-racism. Violence in the form of school segregation. Violence also in the form of condoned physical beatings of Black people for wanting to integrate schools, lunch counters, and residential communities. Violence in the form of killing a Black teenager simply because he looked threatening. (If I had been walking home from choir rehearsal that day instead of driving, perhaps my fate would have been different.) Violence in the form of so many other ways, too, because White supremacy is violence that is approved. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Emmitt Till. All murdered because White supremacy allowed for it. So, I need you to know that your individual Whiteness is not the problem. It is White supremacy. And I need you to go after White supremacy and help us tear the shit down.
I also need you to start a GoFundMe page for me, now. Don’t wait until it’s too late. See, I was named: James Abdul Staten. Which means my parents were in the lanes of Christianity as well as Islam. Praying to God and waiting for salvation; but also wearing Blackness with pride and standing up to the aggressors of injustices. So, when (not if) my children face racism, if you’re my friend, and you care about me, you’re going to have to come for me. I’ll write the eloquent letter; but when that doesn’t work, I’m coming for White supremacy and the White supremacists. When the figurative shit hits the fan, which is already is,I’m standing up for my children, my family, and myself. And White supremacy doesn’t like that. White supremacy says N—– stay in your place…accept this violence…our race is better/more valuable/more worthy of life than yours. So when I show up, agitated and ready to stand up for my family, White supremacy will attack me. That’s how it works. You get to be the angry mamma bear, ready to unleash hell if your child is treated unfairly. I will be the angry Black man, threatening and untamable, ready to do anything for my child; but I’m sure I’ll be met with a different response. White supremacy does not like accountability, especially from Black folk. So it will happen, one of these days, and I ask: if you’re my friend, what will your response be?
I’ve heard from so many of my White friends over the past month, which has been uplifting. If you ever wanted to reach out to me because you are moved by the recent deaths, or because you want to show support but don’t know what to say, or because you’re thinking about me, or because (let’s just be real) I am your only Black friend, that’s okay. Moreover, if you’re guilty for another of these same reasons, here is my advice for you (and I hate giving unsolicited advice) — don’t be. Don’t let guilt or shame prevent you from reaching out; whether it is to me or another friend who is Black. In speaking for myself, I’ll let you know if or when, you’ve crossed the line of tokenizing me. I can accept a friend reaching out because they feel compelled or a sense of urgency. What I cannot accept is someone not doing something, simply because they is it far more convenient. White supremacy likes convenience.
On my Facebook feed, several of my White friends have asked the same question, of varying degrees, What can I do to help? In the wake of all that’s going on in our country, with the general devaluing of Black lives, what can I do to help. While I’m not sure if the question is meant for me, personally, or the broader society in which we live, the question feels as intimidating as it does opportune. Intimidating because I certainly don’t have all of the answers. And our leaders who had the answers, who were guiding us towards viable solutions were (for the most part) gunned down (more about this, later). What’s more, I’m sure any answer I put forth will not be nuanced enough for some; will not be academic enough for others. But also intimidating because no platform will allow me to truly articulate my thoughts to the very complicated question, what can I do to help. (Again with that book idea.) But, ahhhhh, fuck it. I’m from the school where you try something, and if it doesn’t work, you go back and tweak it, and then try it again. And if that doesn’t work, you try something different until you find a solution.
So with that, I take to this figurative pen and pad, and try answering the question.
Allow me to start with the obligatory: There is no one-size-fits-all model. Nor is what I will offer meant to be exhaustive list. This will have to become a journey. Not something that you commit yourself to for the season, or a semester but your commitment will need to be for the remainder of your life. There will be no certificate or participation medal waiting for you on the other end. This will be a constant, continual, cyclical journey — where you’re always learning, aspiring to be better than you were the day before. All that said, let’s go to work.
You start with you. (to be continued)